I have been working for a non-profit thrift store for over a year now, and it is one of the most satisfying and interesting jobs I've ever held. Our non-profit offers programs to veterans, the elderly, at-risk youth, and those facing addictions. I come into contact with many people from various walks of life; those who have money to spend from having jobs that pay them well, elderly folks, and disabled people. It is a distinct pleasure to serve them.
It is the disabled people who have taught me patience and compassion. When you look beyond the wheelchair and canes and (sometimes) vacant stares, you find a breathing human being inside, one who has a brilliant sense of humor. I'm especially drawn to a young woman who practices sarcasm every day, and it is a joy to see her in our store. Our exchanges are quiet and quick, and when she and her caregiver are waiting at the counter when a huffy, privileged person is complaining about some little thing, I can feel the sarcasm just waiting to burst out of the young woman's mouth. So I wink at her and she smiles. When the privileged woman looks behind her and sees the wheelchair-bound girl, she dares not give off a look of horror (which I know she would have done if I hadn't been standing there). She dramatically sweeps down and pats the girl's hand, as if she's done a service to all those who are disabled. "You poor thing," she says. It's everything I can do to keep my mouth shut.
'The Mouse-Proof Kitchen', written by Saira Shah, doesn't really address the same issue. The child, Freya, isn't treated with sad smiles and pats on the hand. She is instantly accepted and cared for. She is the catalyst of the story, and a more precious one could not be imagined.
Anna and Tobias, a young couple living in London, are expecting the birth of a perfect child, and then a move to a perfect life in Provence, France. But life doesn't work out exactly the way they planned. Freya, their daughter, is born physically disabled, and will require constant care for the rest of her life. The family ends up buying a worn down, rodent-infested farmhouse, which is soon a magnet for their strange, lonely neighbors. Confronted by such ill luck, fortune, in many guises, teaches them compassion, love, and forgiveness.
Of all the characters, I found Tobias to be the most selfish. A brilliant musician relying on freelance jobs, he keeps himself away from his daughter, because if he gets too close, he'll fall in love with her. He tells Anna to keep something back, because when they are no longer able to take care of Freya, their grief will be horrible. That I can understand. But when he finally makes a solid connection with their daughter, he's still selfish and inconsiderate.
Anna, however, bonds with Freya immediately. She is the one who takes care of her, although there are times when she just wants to run away. But that bond brings her closer to her own mother, a woman who, in subtle nagging ways, wants to keep the bond alive.
Shah's characters are finely drawn, and their quirks and mannerisms bring a certain sparkle to the story. But the character that really drew me in was the fragile Freya. She reminded me of the many disabled people I help every day.
Humor, compassion and immediate acceptance give 'The Mouse-Proof Kitchen' its energy.
And, I have to admit, even the selfishness of some of the characters give it the intensity it requires.
'The Mouse-Proof Kitchen', published by Atria (a division of Simon & Schuster) is available at your local bookstore and library.